Epic battles in practical ethics: Stoicism vs Objectivism

The Ayn Rand Institute is at it again. They are really unhappy about Stoicism and the waves our philosophy has been making recently. I have written about an all-out assault by Leonard Peikoff, described as “Ayn Rand’s foremost student and today’s leading expert on Objectivism.” Now is the turn of an essay authored by Aaron Smith, entitled “The false promise of Stoicism.” Smith has a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs. He is also — in a somewhat interesting fashion — fundamentally wrong about Stoicism, as I will argue below.

Smith begins his critique by citing Epictetus’ famous rendition of the dichotomy of control:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” Enchiridion 1.1)

Smith doesn’t like this too much, commenting: “There is something right in this advice, as far as it goes. The problem, however, is that Stoicism endorses determinism — the view that our actions and choices are necessitated by factors beyond our control. So, strictly speaking, nothing is up to us. And if nothing is up to us, what use is [the Stoic] advice or the Serenity Prayer or anyone’s advice for that matter? There is no philosophically consistent answer to that question, except: ‘None whatsoever.’”

So, in essence, Smith wants to believe in magic. You see, there are fundamentally three positions about free will (but see here for a lot more):

  1. Deterministic incompatibilism
  2. Compatibilism
  3. (iii) Contra-causal incompatibilism

These three positions in turn stem from your attitude about something called “determinism.” The term is fraught with philosophical complications, but the simplest and broadest definition of it is: things happen as a result of cause-effect, or because there are laws of nature.

(Side note, because I’m sure someone is going to bring this up: no, quantum mechanics does not disprove determinism understood as above, for two reasons. First, it is still not clear if quantum “randomness” is in fact randomness or only appears to be so. Even if there turned out to be such a thing as fundamental randomness, the equations of quantum mechanical theory are deterministic, and at any rate q.m. is not the most fundamental theory in physics. We don’t have one yet. Second, even if true randomness is a feature of the universe, that doesn’t mean that said universe is not governed by laws and by cause-effect. It just means that some of those laws produce a range of outcomes according to a probability distribution, instead of a single possible outcome. None of this makes any difference whatsoever as far as our discussion here is concerned.)

If you accept that the cosmos works by cause-effect, then your attitude about human volition (“free will”) can fall into one of two categories: (a) You believe there is no such thing as volition, it’s an illusion (deterministic incompatibilism); or (b) You believe that volition is just another aspect of the lawful behavior of things in the universe, including human beings (compatibilism).

If you don’t like either of the above two stances on volition, then your only remaining choice, (c) is to reject the premise of determinism and claim special status for human free will (contra-causal incompatibilism). The Stoics — like most contemporary philosophers — chose option (b). Smith, apparently, wants something like (c). Which, based on what we know of how the world works, amounts to believing in magic, just like many religious people do: it’s called “contra-causal” free will because the notion is that, somehow (but how??), human volition can transcend the laws of physics and biology.

Smith does acknowledge that Chrysippus — the head of the second Stoa — carefully considered the problem, and provided a famous analogy with a rolling cylinder. Chrysippus invited us to think of what happens if we gently push a cylinder on a flat surface. It will roll. Why? The intuitive answer is: because we pushed it. But, notes Chrysippus, that’s only part of the answer, the part connected with an external cause (the push). The external cause isn’t the only cause at work, however. The cylinder rolls because it is a cylinder. If it where a cone, it would rotate around its pointed end. If it were a cube, it wouldn’t move, or it would move by discrete steps. If it were a ball, it would roll, but differently from the way a cylinder rolls. In other words, the movement of the cylinder is the result of co-causes, some of which are external (the push), some internal (the nature of the cylinder).

The same, Chrysippus argued, goes for human volition: our decisions are the result of external causes (other people’s opinions, events, etc.), combined with internal causes (our character, considered judgments, etc.). Human beings aren’t passive receivers of external influences (a position known as “the lazy argument”), we are part and parcel of how the universe works. And the intriguing thing, as observed by modern Stoic Larry Becker, is that volition, as an internal cause, can act on itself in a recursive fashion. A fancy way to say that we can reflect on our own judgments and change them. And the more we engage in cognitive and behavioral steps, the more we change our internal causality. If our changes are in the right direction we become better persons, the goal of Stoic practice.

This is as close as one gets to “free will” in a universe governed by laws and by relations of cause-effect. But apparently it’s not enough for Smith, who complains that “for a philosophy to be useful as a guide, it must acknowledge that we have some genuine, volitional control over our actions and choices — actions and choices that make a difference to where we end up in life.”

But we do have “genuine” volitional control over our actions and choices, and those actions and choices to make a difference to where we end up in life. We just don’t have magical choices. To use an analogy, we can fly, but not the way Superman does (magic), but using technology that is bound by the laws of physics (airplanes). Smith is not interested in airplanes, he wants to be Superman.

Next, Smith takes on yours truly: “Massimo Pigliucci seems to acknowledge this problem. But his way of handling this problem, and others, is to ‘update’ Stoicism into something it never was. … Pigliucci drops the central Stoic doctrine that a living, rational God pervades everything in the universe and providentially orders everything for the best — replacing it with atheism, Darwinian natural selection and a modern scientific notion of causation.”

I’ve said many times that Stoicism is a big tent. People who believe in god, whether they are pantheists, like the ancient Stoics, or theists, or deists, can still also practice Stoicism and recognize the value of its philosophical precepts. But setting that aside, of course I would want to update Stoicism with the best of what both philosophy and science have taught us in the intervening two millennia. And that best includes compatibilism about free will (from philosophy), and the universality of natural laws and cause-effect (from science). Besides, “updating” Stoicism isn’t exactly the anathema that Smith thinks it is. Here is Seneca:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters XXXIII.11)

Smith then veers toward another common misconception abut Stoicism: “Intensely valuing life and the things you love involves the possibility of pain, loss and disappointment. Stoicism’s advice is to steel yourself against that possibility by killing your capacity to value.” But Stoicism doesn’t tell you not to value things. It only advices you to recalibrate your values. As Epictetus very clearly states:

“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (Enchiridion 1.3)

Stoics do have positive values: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, for instance, the four cardinal virtues. They also consider a “virtue” (i.e., a type of excellence) the ability to reason soundly (logic), as well as to grasp the nature of the universe (“physics”). The advice to steel ourselves applies only to things that are not under our control. And why would anyone not develop an attitude of equanimity and resilience toward that class of things? What other attitude would be useful?

Smith goes on: “If you value anything that is not under your control, you’ll cherish things fate may take from you at any moment, and that sets you up for a life of pain and frustration. As a result, they hold that the whole range of life-sustaining and life-enhancing values — wealth, art, technology, career success, family, etc. — must not be thought of as having any genuine value — and you mustn’t become attached to them or care for them as if they are truly important.” It is certainly true that the Stoics regard all those things as preferredindifferents,” but Smith has apparently not paid attention to the fact that the Stoics very much attach value (axia, in Greek) to those things. They just don’t think that such things should define our worth as human beings, and in that sense they are not “truly” important. We should treat externals as if they were on loan from the universe, or the way we regard useful and pleasurable objects while we travel:

“People act like a traveller headed for home who stops at an inn and, finding it comfortable, decides to remain there. You’ve lost sight of your goal, man. You were supposed to drive through the inn, not park there.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 23.36-37)

Why? Because nothing is really ours, except the considered judgments we arrive at. Those are the ones on the basis of which we should be thought of as worthy or unworthy human beings. And lucky for us, those are under our control. Which means that the objective of living a life worth living is also under our control. That’s the most precious gift Stoic philosophy has bestowed on humanity, and it’s worth pondering it carefully despite the wishful thinking that people like Smith engage in.

Smith concludes his essay by going back to free will: “To take seriously and to benefit from advice about what is up to us and what is not, we would need to reject any form of determinism (Stoic or modern) and embrace the fact that we have free will.” But if there is no coherent sense in which we have contra-causal free will, then adopting Smith’s attitude would be unvirtuous: we wouldn’t be reasoning well, and we would not be grasping the reality of the cosmos. If Objectivism requires believing in metaphysics fables, then that’s one more reason to reject Objectivism (here is another; and another; and another; and another). I’d rather stick with a philosophy that teaches me to get meaning and value out of my life without recurring to untenable fantasies. That philosophy is Stoicism.

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